Lewis Hamilton's championship challenge was firmly back on track in qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix, a scorching lap of 1:35.908 putting his McLaren on pole position. Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari was second and the sister scarlet car of Felipe...
Lewis Hamilton's championship challenge was firmly back on track in qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix, a scorching lap of 1:35.908 putting his McLaren on pole position. Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari was second and the sister scarlet car of Felipe Massa third, leaving Hamilton's closest rival, teammate Fernando Alonso, down in fourth. It's not over yet but it's a big step closer.
It was fine and dry, if rather windy, at the start of the first 15 minute session with a track temperature in the mid forties. However, rain is predicted for Sunday so the teams and drivers had a tricky time deciding what set up to run in today's dry conditions. Raikkonen, who had a hydraulic problem in practice, was the first man out on track, followed by the Spykers of Adrian Sutil and Sakon Yamamoto.
Renault's Heikki Kovalainen and Giancarlo Fisichella were next, then the Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher and Super Aguri's Takuma Sato. Yamamoto posted an unremarkable 1:40.285 to start with then Sutil shaved off a second. Kovalainen, unsurprisingly, was better with a 1:37.810 and Trulli took second then lost it to Fisichella.
Schumacher was next to the top, 1:37.545, and Anthony Davidson's Super Aguri clocked second. Raikkonen had pitted without setting a time and meanwhile Nico Rosberg's Williams went fastest but was immediately replaced by Mark Webber's Red Bull. Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso took the second slot and teammate Sebastian Vettel went fastest, 1:37.070.
Rubens Barrichello's Honda was sixth and teammate Jenson Button was 13th, David Coulthard's Red Bull 10th, then Hamilton clocked his first flyer, 1:35.798. It was changing very quickly; Alonso was next on the time sheet, just 11 thousandths behind Hamilton, then Massa overtook them both by a mere six thousandths. Robert Kubica's BMW Sauber posted fourth and teammate Heidfeld followed into fifth.
With four minutes to go Raikkonen was still not on the time sheet. He finally went back out for his one and only flying lap of the session and made it count: 1:35.692 for a tenth up on Massa. There was just enough time for a last minute effort, although the top six -- the Ferraris, McLarens and BMWs -- decided not to bother. Everyone else piled back out to try again.
The times were changing so quick it was hard to keep up, just about everyone was improving but who would improve enough was debatable. The notable gainers were Coulthard, Vettel and Liuzzi all in the top 10, as was Button, rounding off the top half of the field. At the other end of the pack Barrichello lucked out and was the first to be dropped in 17th.
Not good for Honda and even worse for Renault with Fisichella 18th. The almost unnoticeable Williams of Alex Wurz was 19th, with Sato, Sutil and Yamamoto the backmarkers. Raikkonen remained at the top from Massa, Hamilton and Alonso and it was time to take a quick breather after a fairly frantic first session. The Red Bull gang were the interesting movers, although Webber was a little bit astray in 13th.
Nobody was in a hurry to get going in the second session, then with four minutes gone Liuzzi headed out and sparked others into action. The track temperature hadn't changed much but it had clouded over a little. Liuzzi, Kovalainen, Webber and Coulthard were first to trade the top spot then Massa put them down with a 1:35.796. Hamilton took second then it was Raikkonen back at the top, 1:35.381.
Alonso went third and Button had got in amongst the Red Bull contingent for eighth. Heidfeld and Kubica lapped in formation and posted seventh and fifth respectively. The Toyotas were in danger in the initial drop zone, as were Kovalainen and Rosberg, but there was time for another lap. Everyone from Kubica in fifth went back out for another attempt to make it into the top 10.
Kubica remained fifth while Heidfeld went up to sixth, Coulthard and Webber following into seventh and eighth and Schumacher and Button were the last to sneak into the final 15 minute session. The Toro Rossos just missed it but 11th for Liuzzi and 12th for Vettel was still a good result. Not so good for Trulli in 13th and Kovalainen had an off track moment at the last corner and ended 14th. Davidson and Rosberg were 15th and 16th.
Heading into the final session, with Hamilton leading the queue out for the fuel burn, Raikkonen looked the most likely to stake his claim to pole. Alonso, who after Hungary had taken to staying as far away as possible from Hamilton in the pole shootout, was on his teammate's rear wing, with Raikkonen watching behind. Hamilton had a couple of early lock-ups but Alonso played safe.
Hamilton's 1:37.432 was the initial marker and after five minutes, quite early really, cars started coming in for fresh tyres. Most had gone out on the hard compound, the Red Bulls on the softer. Hamilton stuck with the harder tyre for his first serious effort, as did Alonso, and Hamilton's time was 1:36.610. Solid but not exceptional and much the same from Alonso, a tenth behind. Raikkonen was a tenth up but it was Massa who snatched it, 1:36.221.
So, three minutes and one hot lap left. The McLarens and Ferraris switched to the softer tyre and Hamilton was the first of the front runners on a flyer. He lit up purple fastest sectors in one and two and posted an unbeatable 1:35.908 -- quite a surprise considering it was seven tenths quicker than his previous lap. Alonso had slow middle sector and was fourth, but hopes his fuel load will pay off.
"I was pretty confident that we were fast enough to beat the Ferraris here; however, they looked very strong, particularly in the fast corners," said Hamilton. "I made my first run on the prime Bridgestone Potenza compound, which had been the more consistent tyre so far, however we opted to do the final run with the option tyres and luckily this worked perfectly for us. I still expect a very close fight for tomorrow's race but we have a strong strategy and I am optimistic."
Hamilton's biggest threat -- aside from the lurking typhoon that's rumbling towards Shanghai -- has to be the Ferraris. Raikkonen is alongside on the front row and needs an even bigger miracle than Alonso, which means the first corner could be very… decisive, shall we say. Massa isn't ready to back down just yet either but will help Raikkonen if called upon to do so.
"Of course it would have been better to be on pole, but all things considered, second place is a good result, especially when you consider the uncertainty about how much fuel those in the top ten are running," said Raikkonen. "I am very happy with the handling of the car this weekend: we have shown we are competitive in all conditions and I think that should be the same even if it rains, which seems likely."
Massa rued a slightly less than perfect lap. "I made a small mistake which with the times being so close, made the difference," he remarked. "All the same, I think I will be competitive in the race, whatever the weather. If it rains, the important thing will be to stay out in front and not make any mistakes. I will be trying to win, but clearly if it is required I am ready to help the team and keep alive its chances of winning the Drivers' title."
Coulthard did a stellar job for Red Bull to grab fifth and with Webber on seventh the team could be looking at a decent points' haul on Sunday. Schumacher managed a respectable sixth but the BMWs were off their usual pace, Heidfeld eighth and Kubica ninth. Running heavy, perhaps? Button rounded off the top 10, some consolation for Honda after Barrichello's woeful early exit.
It will be interesting to see what strategies play out because, due to the weather uncertainty, there could be some risky decisions taken. But if the rain hits, as predicted, just about anything could happen in the race so there's really not much point speculating about it. Final top ten classification: Hamilton, Raikkonen, Massa, Alonso, Coulthard, Schumacher, Webber, Heidfeld, Kubica, Button.